Donald Trump, the Republicans’ idea of a strong leader

In the final assembly of ninth grade I received a leadership award. The recognition was probably based on my saying hi to everyone I passed in school hallways. After that, at each educational level, my understanding of effective leadership evolved. During my senior year of college the student government president was an intelligent young man of gentle spirit who had earned the trust of his peers. He didn’t thrust himself into the limelight but quietly carried out each task his role required. Later he was awarded a scholarship to Harvard for graduate studies and eventually became a superintendent of schools, a leader in his community. A strong leader, no doubt.

The New York Times (12/11/15) has reported, “More than four in 10 Republican primary voters say the quality most important to them in a candidate is strong leadership, and those voters heavily favor Mr. Trump.”

Which leaves me wondering about the qualities of leadership. Here’s my list: An effective leader is one who 1) serves a higher cause than self; 2) is trusted by the majority of the group to whom s/he is responsible; 3) has a deep understanding of the constituencies s/he serves; 4) doesn’t exert power over the group but empowers others; 5) demonstrates an openness to those of opposing viewpoints, with repeated efforts to draw them into the sphere of influence; 6) appeals to and calls upon the higher instincts of the group; and 7) can successfully navigate relationships with other groups/nations.

In recent months, as the country has faced one crisis after another, I’ve watched President Obama speak to the American public. His posture erect, with no grandiose swinging of the arms, he has shown his respect for the office of President, a cause, a position, greater than himself. His speeches, calming in tone, have not been self-serving; rather they have demonstrated his understanding of his responsibility to keep the country safe. He has chosen words carefully, not from a sense of “political correctness” but from a respect for the country’s various constituencies, including Muslims.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump tosses out words as if they are confetti, labeling an opponent as “weak,” intended to make Trump appear strong by contrast. His reactions are reflexive, rather than reflective. Bomb ‘em, keep ‘em out, execute ‘em.

May the American people choose women and men who will lead us with strength grounded in wisdom rather than fear.


Of Loyalty Oaths and Gun Rights

To get a teaching job in the 1970s I had to sign a Loyalty Oath. Oaths usually included something like this: “I do not believe in the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force or violence…. I am not a member of any organization or party which believes and/or teaches directly or indirectly the overthrow of the Government of United States by force.” I’m not writing here to defend such oaths or my decision to sign one. (In 1961 the Supreme Court unanimously voted in support of my favorite junior high teacher, David W. Cramp, Jr., in his claim that Florida’s loyalty oath was unconstitutional.)

Back then right-wing citizens feared that individuals and organizations (i.e. communists) wanted to overthrow the government of the United States. Today they’re—surely I’m not hearing this correctly—are they actually claiming the right to overthrow the U.S. government? A tyrannical government, they say. That’s why the second amendment guarantees that they can own guns. As many as they want. With as much killing power as what the military has access to. Like in a Hollywood movie, True Patriots will take on the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

But who decides when the government has become tyrannical? “Thus always to tyrants,” John Wilkes Booth is said to have shouted in Latin when he killed President Lincoln. (Timothy McVeigh wore a t-shirt with that logo when he was arrested.) Booth couldn’t accept the fact that history was moving the country in a direction different than what he wanted. The terrorist cell he was part of lived under the illusion that through its efforts the Confederacy and the southern way of life would return to the way it had been.

These days we’re hearing a lot of talk about good people with guns and bad people with guns. As if telling the difference between them is all that easy. Booth would have been counted among the good men. He was described as being from the “best of society.” He was chivalrous and charming. Likewise I’m sure that those convinced today of the need to fight a tyrannical government are also good people.

There will always be citizens who don’t agree with the decisions of a democratically elected government. But if the Civil War taught us anything, it was that violence among ourselves will not solve the issues that separate us.

Civility in politics: Let’s keep Archie Bunker out.

Before Archie Bunker came along we Americans pretty much kept bigoted thoughts to ourselves. But in 1971 he entered our living rooms, and for twelve years viewers laughed at his diatribes against blacks, women, and foreigners. Were he on TV today he would surely vent about our mixed-race President and Mexicans illegally crossing the border. He was a man who had an opinion about everything, with little regard for the facts.

Publicity photo from the television program Al...

Publicity photo from the television program All in the Family. Pictured are Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker) and Michael Evans (Lionel Jefferson). In this episode, Archie visits a local blood bank to donate and meets his neighbor, Lionel Jefferson, who is also there to donate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As negative and blustering as Archie was, the show’s mostly white audience came to love him. Maybe that was because, like many of us, outside his home he had little power or influence. In the 1970s women and blacks were challenging white male privilege. A new generation, represented by Archie’s son-in-law, was upsetting the old codes of morality. Archie wanted the world to be like the one he’d grown up in. Many white Americans felt the same way.

Now we hear of politicians who are admired because they “tell it like it is,” “say what needs to be said.” Sometimes, like when they support broad generalizations with pseudo-facts, they sound a lot like Archie. My concern, however, is not that they sound like him but that they’re using fear and a sense of powerlessness to turn decent hard-working Americans into clones of Archie Bunker.

This is an effective approach for reaching people like me, that is older white folks. The rapidly changing technology and shifting morals leave many of us feeling out of the American mainstream. Republicans have long exploited this discomfort and stoked the fires of fear—fear of gays, immigrants, blacks, Muslims. Especially fear of government, how big it is, how powerless the individual is by comparison. Yes, we potential Archie Bunkers stand before them, frightened of a future bearing little resemblance to the world we grew up in.

Instead of those who appeal to the Archie Bunker in us, we need leaders who nurture our noblest qualities: compassion, generosity, an openness to new ideas. Leaders who can unite young and old, black and white, foreign born and native born.

So that our decency might prevail.